WASHINGTON — The nation’s capital was clobbered by a snowstorm Jan. 21 that canceled several inbound flights, just as pro-life demonstrators prepared for the 34th annual March for Life.

The demonstrators on the Capitol Mall, calling for a reversal of the controversial Roe v. Wade abortion decision of 1973, were preparing to brave the worst weather in Washington so far this winter, with sleet and temperatures expected to be just above freezing.

Yet marchers told the Register that they were unbowed by the cold and resolute in their belief that their participation in the march makes a difference.

“It’s just that abortion is wrong,” said 15-year old John Hennessey of Marion, Iowa, who traveled to Washington with his family to join the crowd, which annually numbers in the hundreds of thousands. “An unborn child is still a person.”

The night before the march, Catholic right-to-life marchers packed the enormous Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for the annual National Prayer Vigil for Life Mass. Kneeling schoolchildren, parents, teachers and nuns in habits filled every square inch of the basilica, and Communion distribution alone took nearly half an hour. Just after Philadelphia’s Cardinal Justin Rigali celebrated Mass, pro-lifers smiled at the cold as they prepared for their journeys back to the hotels, rectories and church basements where they would spend the night.

“We’re here because we feel abortion is wrong,” said Monica Wilson, a teacher at Most Sacred Heart School in Eureka, Mo., as she left the Mass. Jake Ruhl, one of her eighth-grade students, added, “Unborn babies don’t have a voice to speak out with, so we have to speak out for them.”

Everywhere in the marchers’ arms were the unavoidable, ubiquitous blue-and-white signs supporting Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., for president — the first Catholic and the most pro-life candidate officially announced for president in 2008.

Hostile Environment

The bitter cold weather, which seems to mark the day of each year’s March for Life, could be a metaphor for the political situation in which the pro-life movement now finds itself. After the mid-term election of 2006, which saw a pro-life loss of about 13 to 15 House seats and five Senate seats, Washington is now home to a Congress much more hostile to the cause. The new Democratic leadership teams in both houses support legalized abortion and are expected to oppose most measures to advance the respect and protection of unborn human life.

“We’re going to have to be more pro-active as pro-lifers,” said Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., a pro-life stalwart and a convert to Catholicism. “The new Congress means that we’re going to have to be more vocal than before. We can still win, but we’ve got to rally the troops.”

Jones, a principled back-bencher known for speaking his mind — often to the consternation of his own party leaders — acknowledged the new difficulties, but also pointed out the recent House vote on federal funding for medical experiments that involve killing human embryos. Pro-lifers lost that vote, 253-174, but the result was still short of the two-thirds needed to override an expected veto from President Bush.

Jones noted that 16 of those voting against the measure were Democrats, and that part of the pro-life strategy in the new Congress would involve the 30 to 40 House Democrats who vote for most pro-life legislation.

“I hope that there will be enough Protestants and Catholics in the Democratic Party that will stand up for pro-life issues,” said Jones.

“I think we have some opportunities to play offense because we have a number of Democrats who promised to be pro-life in the House,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., a 31-year-old Catholic congressman first elected in 2004. “But it is undoubtedly a much more difficult environment for the pro-life community.”

The congressional struggle this year will be mostly a defensive one, McHenry added. “Clearly, the House leadership is hostile to all pro-life measures,” he said, “but in the Senate we have an opportunity because an organized minority can prevent action from occurring.”

Four of the newly elected pro-life congressmen are Democrats, including one — Rep. Charlie Wilson, D-Ohio — who replaced a pro-abortion member of Congress.

With the election results, pro-abortion members of Congress now appear to hold a majority in both Houses on most issues related to gestational human life. President Bush, who addressed the pro-life marchers by telephone from Camp David on the day of the March for Life, may have to veto several bills and threaten to veto many others in order to prevent measures from passing.

“For now, in the stem-cell debate, President Bush is the key linchpin for us to succeed,” said McHenry. “His vetoes are the only thing preserving common sense in our federal funding policy. We’re in a dangerous position on the slippery slope of stem-cell research and cloning, which are very challenging issues to articulate. We have a lot of work ahead of us to educate the public on them.”

Brownback said he sees embryonic stem-cell research as the most vital battle in the Senate this year.

“It will be a defensive battle,” he said. “The president will veto it, but we would hope to maintain at least [enough votes to prevent] a veto override. That will be the biggest issue that will come up. And we’re going to try to bring up a number of issues and force votes on them — on human cloning, we’ll try to put our set of ideas forward on that as well. There’s also going to be a defensive battle that we’re going to have to try to maintain the prohibition [on patenting human embryos]. That’s an annual appropriations issue. And then we’ll have to fight to protect the conscience clauses [that bar federally funded hospitals from discriminating against medical professionals who refuse to participate in abortions].”

McHenry also named other major abortion-related issues that will come up before Congress this year. One measure, which must be renewed each year through the federal appropriations process, determines whether abortions will be permitted on U.S. military bases overseas — currently they are not — and another will determine whether the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office can issue a patent for a human embryo. Another annual measure bars federally funded hospitals from discriminating against medical professionals who refuse to participate in abortions.

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., who has a long pro-life voting record, said that the presence of marchers in Washington has an effect on members of Congress. Stupak planned to return to Washington on the afternoon of the March for Life.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if some of [the marchers] are waiting for me in my office when I get back,” he told the Register. “I think the 110th Congress, for the right-to-life movement, we’ll just try to maintain the advances we’ve made.”

He said that he hopes to vote on the Fetal Pain Awareness act, which failed to pass in the last Congress. The bill would require abortionists to offer an anesthetic before an abortion, in order to highlight the fact that unborn children feel pain when they are killed in abortions.

“It is about educating people,” he said. “It shows how early in development a child feels pain.”

The U.S. Senate could also face another Supreme Court nomination — potentially the decisive one in overturning Roe v. Wade, which essentially removes the abortion issue from voters by prohibiting legislative action restricting abortion.

Jones cited the March for Life as an event in which pro-lifers can keep the life issue on the radar screen and emphasize their commitment to Washington’s elected officials by showing up in great numbers. “We can still win the battles,” he said. “Pro-lifers in Congress and pro-lifers throughout the country need to let their voices be heard.”     

David Freddoso

writes from Washington.